Store beefs up with its own herd

Associated Press

SPOKANE — Ken Chapin knows good beef when he sees it, and he’s betting customers of Yoke’s supermarkets will, too.

The Spokane chain, dismayed by the poor quality of beef available on the wholesale market, has purchased its own cattle herd, branching out from beef seller to cowpuncher.

"It’s corn fed and shipped to Omaha on the hoof," said Chapin, who likes to offer visitors a tasty slab of prime rib. "It comes back as meat."

Chapin is the nine-store chain’s director of meat.

Yoke’s Foods of Washington is part of a nationwide movement to reverse the decline in beef quality caused by mass production. The cuts of choice beef sent to supermarkets are typically the poorest quality, Chapin said. Restaurants and specialty stores get the best.

While numerous chains have started contracting with specialized ranchers to produce more flavorful meat, few have gone to the trouble of buying their own herd.

The employee-owned chain bought 215 head of cattle this fall to begin the herd, establishing Yoke’s Cattle Co. It is poking some fun at the notion of gaucho grocers in television advertising that shows employees dressed as butchers trying to climb on horses and herd cattle.

But don’t expect to see John Wayne types at the checkout. Rather than teach its cashiers roping skills, Yoke’s signed deals with certified Hereford ranchers in the Spokane and Ritzville areas to raise the calves at a guaranteed price.

Cattle from the first herd will be butchered in the spring, Chapin said.

"Our intent is to be 100 percent our own bought, raised and processed cattle," Chapin said. "It will probably take a couple of years to get to that."

Customers should not have to pay more for the beef, Chapin said.

For those who don’t know a Hereford from Harrison Ford, they are the brown cows with white faces that long have been considered prime beef stock.

The breed was developed in England about 260 years ago, and imported to the United States in the early 1800s. Hereford cows add weight quickly in harsh conditions, and the meat is tender and flavorful.

Consumption of beef dropped in the United States in the early 1970s as part of the physical fitness trend, and breeding intended to increase tonnage of the cows created a poorer-quality product, Chapin said.

Seeking to reverse the decline in sales, the American Hereford Association, based in Kansas City, Mo., concentrated on improving the quality of the meat. It began certifying ranches that raised Hereford cattle, and in 1995 launched a program in which grocery stores offered only Hereford beef to customers.

Craig Huffhines, head of the association, said Hereford-branded beef is available in about 200 grocery stores in nine states, mostly in the Midwest. Yoke’s is the only chain that actually is raising its own cattle, the association said.

While it’s only a tiny part of the huge beef market, sales of branded beef are growing exponentially, Huffhines said.

"In the next 10 years, over 80 percent of the beef produced will be branded under some company name," Huffhines said.

Sales of beef rebounded in recent years, in part because of the booming economy, Huffhines said. But sales have slowed down considerably since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and it’s unclear what the future holds, he added.

Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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